Word Nerd Wednesday: Blaggard

Alfie Doolittle

I recently watched the 1964 musical My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, yet I found it delightful. The film is a modern adaptation of Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 theater production.

For those unfamiliar, My Fair Lady stars Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, a loud, uncouth young woman selling flowers on the streets of London. Her father, Alfred Doolittle, is quickly revealed to be little more than a drunkard and a hustler. At one point in the film, Professor Higgins, Eliza’s unkind and insulting but determined benefactor, determines at first meeting that Alfie is little more than a *blaggard. I really liked the word, partly for it’s whimsical phonetics, and partly because we seem to be a country being led by many blaggards. I think a definition is in order.

Blaggard: A scoundrel; an unprincipled contemptible person; an untrustworthy person. Usually, only used to refer to a male person.

I’m not particularly keen on the notion of relegating this type of character to one of the male sex, but I assume there is a female equivalent to be found in the language of the time when blaggard was more commonly used. I could not find today’s word in most popular dictionaries. Instead most referred me etymologically to the word blackguard, from the 1530s, which is defined similarly, having been transformed into the word blaggard by both the English and the Irish.

Alfie Doolittle (r), constrained by middle class morality.

One interesting thing about our blaggard Alfie Doolittle was that he was solidly opposed to what he referred to as “middle class morality”. He enjoyed the freedom of being on the lower rungs of society. He had nothing, so no one expected anything of him, leaving him free to do whatsoever he desired. And what he most desired was to drink, carouse, and not be bothered with marrying the mother of his children.

Later, due to a passing joke made at his expense by Professor Higgins, Alfie inherited a tidy sum of money. At once, he felt a responsibility to marry Eliza’s long time “stepmother”, and as the film closes we find Alfie in a tux, swigging booze and chasing women with his last night of freedom. Middle class morality means he needs to do the respectable thing, but not just yet.

Beneath the veneer of the tails and top hat, he’s still a blaggard at heart. With his last night of freedom, he parties the night away, while repeatedly reminding his companions to “get me to the church on time!”

I suspect George Bernard Shaw’s perception of middle class morality was both complex and ironic, with a bit of contempt thrown in besides.

*My browser considers every instance of the word blaggard misspelled. For some reason, I enjoy it when that happens; especially when I know that my word is a legitimate one.